Harrison Jeffa was busy selling fish on the shores of the Indian Ocean in Marereni, Kilifi County, on March 26, 2018 when a middle-aged man approached him with a lucrative fishing job in Kiunga, Lamu County.
The man identified as Mohamed Ali convinced Jeffa to join him for a lucrative crab-fishing venture. “He told me I would be in charge of a team fishing crabs and selling them at Sh500 per kilogramme compared to the normal price of Sh250 in Marereni,” he said.
Mohamed also charged him with recruiting more fishermen for the Kiunga fishing expedition.
Jeffa recruited his nephew, who was also a fisherman, and his four other colleagues, with the ‘generous Mohamed’ giving their families Sh3,000 each for upkeep.
“He promised to send our families a further Sh2,000 for upkeep on reaching Kiunga. Some 11 of us later boarded a bus to Lamu.”
Little did Jeffa and his group know that their invitation for a fishing job was a trap to lure them into the hands of the Al-Shabaab terror group in Somalia.
Jeffa, a father of five, is among 13 Kenyans aged between 18 and 45 who were rescued in March last year by the Kenya Defence Forces from the terrorist group.
The Saturday Nation found him at the Marereni chief’s office together with his nephew, Kelvin Baraka, 23, also an Al-Shabaab returnee, where they narrated their ordeal in the hands of the terror group at Ras Kamboni, and how they managed to escape after a month in captivity.
The returnees hail from Kilifi and Lamu counties. Mohamed later introduced them to another person called Abdalla from Mombasa, whom he described as his boss.
Interestingly, both Mohamed and Abdala alighted at Kanagoni along the Malindi-Garsen Road.
In Lamu, they met two men called Kuchi and Kanyara, who bought them miraa before they embarked on their journey to Kiunga by boat. “We travelled past the Kenya-Somalia border to Ras Kamboni. We were not allowed to ask questions," Jeffa recounted.
They then boarded a boat and travelled to Mdoa at night where they were locked up in a cell. They later began another journey by boat.
They knew their lives were in danger when the boat’s captain advised them to learn ‘Shahada’ and informed them that they were in Al-Shabaab territory.
Sensing danger, Baraka says they attacked the captain and forced him to take them back to Ras Kamboni. “At Ras Kamboni, we were kept in the custody of some Somali people who said they would not release us until we paid Abdala Sh300,000. They wanted us to solicit money from our relatives,” he said.
One of them escaped and met a person who took him to a KDF officer clad in civilian. He helped free them. “We were rescued and taken to a KDF camp where our photos and statements were taken before we were escorted to Kenya-Somalia border. We were later taken to Malindi where we were received by our parents, relatives, politicians and friends,” recounted Jeffa.
Today, the 13 are living in fear as their recruiters still roam freely in Kilifi and Mombasa counties.
“Our pictures were shared all over the world after we were rescued, but we were never rehabilitated. And although the community seems to have accepted us back, some still tag us as Al-Shabaab. We need protection,” said another returnee. They feel betrayed by the government.
Former Kilifi County Commissioner Magu Mutindika said the issue is being handled by Counter Terrorism Unit, military and the police. “I will inquire on the progress,” Mr Mutindika said.
The Commission for Human Rights and Justice (CHRJ) executive director Julius Ogogoh asked NGOs and government agencies dealing with violent extremism to rehabilitate the 13 returnees.
However, Pwani University sociologist Halim Shauri said the government must be appreciated in its fight against violent extremism.
“It is a fact that there are returnees, some have defected and others have come back for different missions. The idea of rehabilitation and reintegration is good but new to Kenya,” Prof Shauri said.
The don cited lack of a legal framework as a challenge. “When one is recruited into a criminal group, it is difficult to rehabilitate them. There must be a framework,” the sociologist insisted.
The don said an international agency is working with the government to rehabilitate and reintegrate returnees back to the community.
Prof Shauri said some returnees had reintegrated but some could not go back home due to social stigma and discrimination.